It’s a long way from Melbourne to Belgrade. While eggs are being fried on pavements under the blazing sun Down Under, people trapped in blizzards are being rescued from their homes and vehicles in eastern Europe.
It must have felt quite different for Stanislas Wawrinka too, as he took to the tennis stage at Novi Sad, Serbia, this weekend. After all, not even a week had passed since his memorable Australian Open – a fortnight which saw him notch up significant victories against personal Big 4 nemeses Djokovic and Nadal, rise up all the way to number 3 in the ATP rankings, and in the process, complete the small task of winning a maiden Grand Slam title. Now, just a few days later, he was walking into an indoor stadium in the bleak European winter, to a hostile crowd, with practically no ATP points to gain, to take on an opponent that he likely knew very little about.
But that’s part of the curious eccentricities that surround the Davis Cup, and the tennis fraternity’s relationship with it. People don’t compete in the Davis Cup for points, or for money, or for their individual careers, we are told. Rather, it is for loftier-sounding ideals, like nationalism, pride and team spirit.
While the driving forces behind Davis Cup participation can be debated to death, a cursory glance at the background templates of the respective online home pages for the ATP and the Davis Cup will suffice for now. The ATP’s background shows individual tennis players in full-length and full flow, the focus of attention solely on the power, aesthetics, and sweat of men’s tennis. The Davis Cup background, on the other hand, is a riot of colours, with fans in war-paint, fans with vuvuzelas, fans waving flags, fans dancing,…
Irrespective of where your personal inclination might lie, the 2014 World Group first round of the Davis Cup did happen over the weekend. 16 countries were involved in eight ties all over the world, vying for a place in the quarterfinal stage. Some established stars renewed their relationship with the tournament, while some were conspicuous by their absence.
Five of the eight seeded teams were knocked out, and three home teams lost, though none of those results came as a huge surprise. And in a time-honoured tradition, a few players rose to the occasion over the weekend, played out of their skins, and did their bit to establish their personal Davis Cup warrior credentials. Here’s a look at a few of the players who took their turn to play Davis Cup hero this weekend.
The Rise and Rise of Tomas Berdych:
Tomas Berdych might have been treading water in the ATP Top 10 for a while now, but he has made tremendous strides in his Davis Cup career. A primary reason for the Czech Republic’s status of two-time defending champion, Berdych has also established a formidable doubles partnership in the tournament with Radek Stepanek.
This weekend, playing at home against the Netherlands, he watched his doubles mate lose the opening singles rubber to Robin Haase. But that didn’t faze him at all, as he reported for full duty, and proceeded to win both his singles rubbers in straight sets, while combining with Stepanek for a doubles victory. Looking ahead at the Czech Republic’s draw, and judging by his current form, Berdych must be fancying his country’s chances at a third straight Davis Cup.
Fabio Fognini, Flyer of the Flag:
Fabio Fognini doesn’t come across as the most ‘focused’ or ‘committed’ tennis player, on first glance. He may not seem to be the automatic choice to lay the weight of your nation’s expectations on. But then again, Fognini is an established son of the Italian soil. A recent interview with him had sections that ran as follows.
Q: What is your favourite cuisine?
Q: Where do you like to vacation?
FF: In Italy
Q: Where have you seen the most beautiful women?
FF: In Italy, of course
So perhaps it wasn’t that surprising to watch Fognini kneel down, kiss the red clay and whoop in exultation after winning the deciding singles rubber against Carlos Berlocq of Argentina. Fognini had just done a Berdych, in that he watched his teammate lose the opening singles rubber, before making a clean sweep of the three matches he played in. What made his performance even more credible was that the tie was played away from home, and against Argentina – always a tough Davis Cup team, even if they were missing del Potro.
Thus, Fognini singlehandedly took Italy to only its second quarterfinal appearance in the last 15 years, and consigned Argentina to its first opening round defeat in 13 years. A heady performance from an unlikely Davis Cup warrior.
Back or No Back, Andy Murray Wants to be Back:
Fans of the grumpy Scotsman were treated to his most reassuring performance yet since his comeback from back surgery last year. Playing against the Americans in a renovated baseball stadium in San Diego, USA, Murray efficiently crushed the challenge of Donald Young in the opening singles rubber.
Heading into the middle doubles day with a 2-0 lead, the Brits made the tactical decision of resting Murray. The Bryan brothers promptly made them pay for it. But in the end, it might have been the right strategy, as Murray came out fresh for his reverse singles rubber against Sam Querrey, and clinched a tight match and the tie 3-1.
Sam Querrey posed a poignant counterpoint to Murray, as a Davis Cup could-have-been, when he lost both his singles encounters in tight matches, and thereby a tie that the USA would have been hopeful of winning, Murray or no Murray. In the end, it was Murray who played the knight in shining armour, and saw Great Britain into its first Davis Cup quarterfinal appearance since 1986.
Andrey Golubev, the Last Kazakh Standing:
A unique aspect of the Davis Cup is how it throws up players we know nothing about suddenly into the spotlight, fighting for their countries on the biggest of stages. Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan, ranked number 88 in the world, contributed to this aspect over the weekend, as he helped defeat Belgium in the only tie over the weekend that featured a live fifth rubber.
Another special aspect of the tournament are the 5-set, never-ending classics that occasionally play out, providing us with thrills, spills and a lot of flag waving. Golubev contributed to this as well, when he beat David Goffin in the second singles rubber of the tie, 12-10 in the fifth set.
Entering the fifth rubber, the scores were tied at 2-2, and it was down to Golubev again. He chose to ignore the dramatics this time, as he proceeded to complete a straightforward straight-sets win over Ruben Bemelmans.
Kazakhstan is an emerging tennis powerhouse, as their Davis Cup results over the last few years indicate. Whether Andrey Golubev is also an emerging talent, or just a one-weekend hit, remains to be seen.
So the heroes rose over the weekend – some familiar faces, some new ones. The competition is down to eight teams now, and the tournament, in its year-long circuitous odyssey, will reconvene for the quarterfinals in April.
And in case you were wondering about Wawrinka, he did just fine, with a 4-set victory over Dusan Lajovic, the top Serb in an unfortunately depleted team. The Swiss team cruised to an expected away win over the Serbs, but Wawrinka might have been happiest for the presence of his friend and countryman Roger Federer back in the national team. Federer did even better in his sudden return to Davis Cup duty, winning in straight sets in the tie-opener against Ilifa Bozoljac.
For the Swiss team looking to go all the way this time, and for the Davis Cup looking for more star power, having Federer around must have been very encouraging. For them, his very presence makes him a hero for the weekend.